Liana Grigorian, “The Rifles” (2020) (image provided by Liana Grigoryan and the She Loves Collective and used with permission)

On Sunday, October 11, 15 performers gathered in downtown Los Angeles donning white robes with images of rifles printed on them. The stark visual was recorded by onlookers and the group itself, so that it could appear on the screens of people around the world amidst the pandemic.

The performance art piece, “The Rifles Our Ancestors Didn’t Have,” was organized by She Loves Collective, which was founded in 2017 and is, in their own words, “an alliance of female artists who share a strong belief in the power of creating social change through art.” Co-founded by Adrineh Baghdassarian and Nelly Achkhen Sarkissian, She Loves Collective chose the performance to reflect on the war in the Armenian-populated Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (aka Artsakh), where Azerbaijani military, with the help of Turkey and Syrian Islamist fighters, ignited a continuing war after a September 27 attack. The lives of tens of thousands of people are being threatened daily by the fight. Hyperallergic previously reported about the threat the war poses on the archaeological heritage of the region, which includes important ancient and early Christian sites.

The performance was designed to raise awareness of the war, which, in less than three weeks, has already claimed over 1,000 lives, though the toll may be much greater than is currently known. Los Angeles is home to one of the largest Armenian communities in the world.

Armenians see the new war as a continuation of the Armenian Genocide and are concerned at the lack of media coverage. Communities have taken to the streets to protest in cities around the world, blockading highways, demanding coverage in front of network television studios, and other actions — one of which I participated in this past weekend.

A well-known Ottoman-era photograph of two Armenian women dressed as Armenian fedayis or freedom fighters. (public domain)

“We hope to engage the global community, which has remained mostly silent about these blatant attacks, particularly the United States,” Baghdassarian explained.

While some may be shocked at the imagery, there is a long history of Armenian women as defenders of their communities, particularly during the Armenian Genocide when Ottoman authorities conscripted Armenian men to almost certain death, and women and children were left to fend for themselves. During the same period, all guns were confiscated from Armenians by Ottoman authorities.

At the performance this week, women wore jewelry, created by She Loves members Taline Olmessekian and Anaeis Ohanian, to evoke the imagery of gladiators and warriors. The image of the rifle, according to the group, is symbolic of self-defense and self-determination. The group also brought small carpets made in Armenia and Artsakh, which symbolize not only their heritage, but the “patterns” of generational trauma, according to the group, passed down through the years.

The performance comes during a period when the escalation of hostilities has caused global concern. This week, during a panel hosted by the Harvard Law Students Association, David L. Phillips, who is the director of Peace-Building and Human Rights Program at Columbia University, warned, “We are on the verge of another Armenian Genocide.” Today, the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign released a statement asserting that they, if elected, will officially recognize the Armenian Genocide and seek peace in Artsakh. While there is hesitation among Armenians to take the statement at face value — as US politicians have, for decades, made similar assurances to Armenian Americans — it comes at a time when President Trump continues to remain silent on both issues. Today, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made a statement to WBS radio in Atlanta that suggests the US doesn’t plan to do anything. “We’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing,” he said.

“Rifles Our Ancestors Didn’t Have” took place at Grand Park, the Broad Museum, and LA City Hall, all in downtown Los Angeles, and the group says it will be the first action of an ongoing project.

The performers at the Broad Museum (image provided by Hilma Photography and the She Loves Collective and used with permission)
The performers in front of LA City Hall (image provided by Hilma Photography and the She Loves Collective and used with permission)
The performers at Los Angeles City Hall (image provided by Hilma Photography and the She Loves Collective and used with permission)

Hrag Vartanian is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Hyperallergic.